Eric’s Pet Plant: Lupine (Lupinus species)

Being a Maine person, I have a particular interest in lupines, which will be discussed at the end of the post. First, however, the word from Eric, who not surprisingly is fond of them even though he lives in Connecticut. He’s having an open house this weekend, btw, scroll on down for the invitation.

clump of blue cultivated (Russell) lupines

The spikes of multiple flowers are wonderful in the vase, but also a great show in the garden. Used as a focal point in the perennial bed, as a Derby Day sentinel at the gate to the terrace or in the cutting garden, you can’t go wrong with a good thrifty clump of lupines.

Lupine (Lupinus species)

By Eric Larson 

The Lupine in one of our Iris beds is a structural entity in the garden, even when not in bloom, and when, as now, it IS in full bloom, it is indeed magical.

As a member of the Pea family, Fabaceae, it’s also useful. Lupines can be grown as soil-nourishing cover crops, and they’re helpful companion plants when intercropped with cucumbers, squash, broccoli and spinach.

Not all lupines are edible, but the ones that are have a full range of essential amino acids and can be used as an alternative to soybeans. Those of you who like me thought that Lupine seeds were poisonous may be surprised to learn that lupini dishes are commonly found in the cuisine of many Mediterranean countries.

The “sweet” varieties of Lupinus, those that have no bitter-tasting,  unsalubrious alkaloids, are grown commercially in parts of Europe and are used for everything from vegan sausages to flour. [Such products often wear warning labels because –  also like soybeans – lupines can provoke allergic reactions. L.L.]

Among the three hundred (or more, authorities differ) Lupinus species there are a few outlying woody trees and shrubs, but most are herbaceous plants, including the handsomely flowering lupines of ornamental horticulture.

Although most ornamental lupines are technically perennials, many gardeners treat them as biennials because of their tendency to flower the second year and then start declining right away. Full sun and well-drained, average fertility soil are essential to longevity, and “unimproved” species often last longer than the gorgeous hybrids featured in catalogs.

Not many pests bother with your Lupine but aphids will sometimes cover it. If they do, insecticidal soap or one of the beneficial insects will likely take care of them. Lady Beetles work wonders, but I wouldn’t recommend the purchase of same: they tend to be too mobile to do the gardener much good. That being said, the sight of a Lady Beetle larva eating an adult aphid is a sight to behold: they pick them up and eat them just like you and I would eat an ear of corn, moving down the length and turning it slightly to get the next row. Fantastic!

Flowering lupines are fairly easy to start from seed  – my preferred method – but if you are in a hurry for flowers it’s nice to know potted plants old enough to bloom the first year are widely available. Be sure to ask the seller about expected bloom season; seedlings too young to perform their first year  are also offered in spring.

Depending on the species and variety, the flower color can range from yellow to blue, salmon pink to purple and almost red.  Most of the types available as horticultural specimens are in the cooler range of purple to violet. The height is in the two-and-a-half to three-foot range when in flower, with multiple flower spikes emerging over a ten day to two-week period.

blue russell lupines close up

These are close to ideal cutting stage

The flowers are not the longest-lived cut flowers, but I have found if you cut them when no more than a third of the flowers have popped open (they open from the bottom of the flower working upwards), then they will last for several days in the vase. They are an unbelievably striking focal point in a large vase with just some fern leaves around the bottom.

The genus name Lupine comes from the root word lupinus, Latin for wolf.  Lupine as an adjective also means savage, ravenous and predatory, all connected with the wolf. This may have something to do with the propensity for some species to become invasive, as on the South Island of New Zealand,  where Lupinus  polyphyllus has covered stream banks and roadsides.

The native Bluebonnet in Texas( fittingly, L. texensis ) is also on the aggressive side, but of course its predominance is welcome there as part of the spring display and indeed a deserving focus of festivals, tours and other events.

One last note here about the writing of this column. If what Lao Tzu said in the 71st chapter of the Tao Te Ching is correct, then I am well on my way to enlightenment.  “He who regards his intellectual knowledge as ignorance has deep insight.”

The more I learn about gardening and horticulture, the more convinced I am about how much I don’t know. I reckon I could come up with a pseudo-Sino saying here about how long the road is, each step is an adventure, the path is winding and steep in some places, and broad and flat in others, but really, I much prefer the role of ‘guide on the side,’ to that of ‘sage on the stage.’

So let me just say that I am humbled every day in the garden, and if your observations differ from mine or you have anything to add to the discussion, I would truly appreciate hearing from you in the comments. Contributions are anonymous unless you want your identity – or website! – to be revealed, so there’s no downside to sharing more widely.

INVITATION: We will be having an open house here at the garden on Friday May 25, from five thirty to eight o’clock.  I have emboldened that time frame so that you will notice it is a change from our previous events which I mercifully cut short at seven so as not to bother people with my feeble attempts at explaining the miracles  of plant life, evolution and adaptation.  But this time we will keep  the neighbors whining deep into the evening, providing tours of the glass houses, light refreshments and our usual array of live musical talent.


"wild" lupines in Maine

View from a roadside that’s near my house but could be almost anywhere in coastal Maine when it’s lupine time.

Our lupines are right up there with lighthouses and lobster boats for iconic Maine sights-to-see, and although there are both good and “bad” years, there has never in my four decades of residence been an early summer when they didn’t show up.

This has led a great many people to assume they’re native wildflowers. They’re not. Or usually they’re not. Most of the time they’re the same invaders Eric described conquering New Zealand, L. polyphyllus, a parent of many well-loved hybrids, which is only  a native wildflower in the Pacific Northwest.

We do have a native blue lupine, L. perennis, but the bigger, more vigorous, mullti-colored L. polyphyllus is driving them out. This is not an entirely good thing, however spectacular visually, because the native species is an essential food for the larvae of a highly endangered native butterfly, the Karner Blue.

There are a number of reasons the butterfly is threatened with extinction; the fact that they don’t like L. polyphyllus (or are poisoned by it, depending on which source you consult) isn’t the only problem. But it certainly isn’t helping.

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  • So I’ve always wondered–is it pronounced “loo-pin” or “loo-pine”?

    I’ve always said “loo-pin” like the wolf; my MIL says “loo-pine.” She’s from Illinois, maybe that’s how they say it.



    hi Jules,

    Fortunately for family harmony, I think if you’re talking about “lupine”, it’s really one of those tomaytoes/tomahtoes things. That said, the botanical “lupinus,” is in modern usage lu-pine-us. It used to be old fashioned Latin: lu-peen-us, but I haven’t heard that for years.

  • Vee Said,

    Well shoot! I’ve been staying away from this plant because I understood that they were invasive. Having dug up a garden full of Lilies of the Valley, I was not inclined to have the entire garden given over to lupines. Thank you for the information. I’ll add this one to my growing list.

    Hi Vee,

    Congrats on not planting them – and please accept my condolences for being right. Happens more and more these days, especially if you avoid aggressive as well as invasive. ..sigh. For me, lilies of the valley are particularly vexing. Lots and lots of them down in the Hudson Valley, but here in Maine I can’t get them to grow, even though I want some (they were my mother’s favorite flower).

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